Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Special Feature! Interview with CBC Short Story Prize Winner David Huebert

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David Huebert (photo credit: Mike Kalimin)

David Huebert is no stranger to winning literary prizes. He's captured The Dalhousie Review's short story contest prize as well as The Antigonish Review's Sheldon Currie Fiction Prize. But today he adds what is arguably the top short fiction prize in the country to his literary résumé: the CBC Short Story Prize.

CBC Books, along with their partners the Canada Council for the Arts, Air Canada’s enRoute magazine and The Banff Centre announced this morning that David's story, "Enigma", captured the top prize, beating out more than 1800 other stories. A multi-genre writer, David is the author of the poetry collection We Are No Longer the Smart Kids in Class. Originally from Halifax, David currently lives in London, Ontario, where he is completing a PhD in American Literature.

For his win, David will receive $6,000 from the Canada Council for the Arts and a 10-day writing residency at the prestigious Banff Centre, and "Enigma" will appear in enRoute.

The jury, composed of writers Greg Hollingshead, Padma Viswanathan and Richard Van Camp, called "Enigma" "a paean to intimacy and to things rarely seen... a vivid personal narrative of remarkable spiritual and emotional grace."

We're thrilled to welcome David to Open Book today to talk about his winning story. He tells us about writing the animal-human connection, experimenting with different perspectives and the "pulse" of a great short story.

Open Book:

Both horses and whales feature in "Enigma" in such visceral and memorable images. Tell us about your own relationship to animals.

David Huebert:

I like animals enough to live with two of them: a fluffy white cat we call Moby Dick and a lovely primate named Natasha. I’ve also been very close with quite a few dogs, and I try to get near nonhuman life as often as I can. I’m doing a PhD on animals in American literature so I think a lot about the role of animals in stories. John Berger wrote that “the first metaphor was animal,” and if you look at ancient cave paintings, myths, and folk tales from every tradition, it seems pretty clear that animals are a primal force behind the human storytelling impulse. It’s actually kind of strange to think that some modern films and novels have barely any animals — how bland!

Last summer I went whale watching with my mother and my partner Natasha off the Digby Neck in Nova Scotia. On one level it’s a cliché and touristy thing to do but it really did transform me. It was reassuring to see that there are these giants alive in the ocean — surviving in spite of everything. I tried to weave some of that wonder into “Enigma.”


What was the writing process like with "Enigma"? When was it written and how did you revise the story?


I wrote “Enigma” pretty fast. I think it took about a week to write and revise. I knew I wanted to write about those whales, and that section was actually the part I wrote first. Once I figured out how to fold the two narratives together the story really leaked out of me. Sometimes I carry story ideas around for months or years before finding a way into the telling. That wasn’t the case with “Enigma.” But I do think on some level this is a story I’ve been writing my whole life and will keep writing.


The speaker in "Enigma" is a young woman. What drew you to writing from a woman's perspective for this particular piece? Are you drawn to inhabiting a variety of voices as a writer?


I write from female points of view fairly often. I do like to push myself formally and this is one of the most obvious challenges available. The question of whether the female voice succeeds in “Enigma” was definitely one of my biggest concerns when I submitted it and even after hearing about the win. I think the way to write the female perspective as a man might be to forget that you are writing the female perspective. That’s what I tried to do with this story — not imagine myself into some kind of “womanly mind” but imagine myself as a person who happened to be female.


How would you describe the qualities of a great short story, as both a reader and a writer? What makes a particular short story exceptional in your opinion?


There are many, many different ways to make a brilliant story. A great story has a pulse you can feel. A pulse that doesn’t leave you after you’ve stopped reading. I think rhythm is really important for that — the confluence of sound and sense really drives me through the fiction I love. Another major thing is that you have to trust the writer. Most readers don’t like clichés, don’t like filler, and don’t like it if you make it too easy. If the action and the language and the emotion is too clear it’s just a transcription. There has to be a creature lurking beneath the story, a creature that never fully reveals itself.


What will you be working on next, and where can readers find more of you and your work?


“Enigma” is part of a collection I’ve recently finished called Peninsula Sinking. It’s about the Atlantic ocean, about being Nova Scotian, about environmental anxiety, about loving a suffering place. Hopefully it will be made into a book in the not-so-distant future. I’ve also got a poetry collection out — We Are No Longer The Smart Kids In Class (Guernica 2015). And I have two linked stories— “Bellyflop” and “Silicone Giddy” — available for free online at " target="_blank">The Puritan. The next project is a novel about oil.


How are you going to celebrate winning a CBC Literary Prize?


Definitely by eating. There have been whispers of karaoke. But the best celebration will be the chance to get some sustained writing done, riding the slipstream of this unexpected and overwhelming validation.

David Huebert is the author of the poetry collection We Are No Longer The Smart Kids In Class. In 2015 his fiction won The Dalhousie Review's short story contest and The Antigonish Review's Sheldon Currie Fiction Prize. "Enigma" is part of a collection-­in-­progress called Peninsula Sinking.

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